John F. Kennedy’s inextricable link to James Bond



Anyone in their 70s or above knows exactly where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, when they learned that Lee Harvey Oswald had assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Most of us alive today were in school at the time and first heard about the shooting from a teacher.

For the next few days, the entire nation — even us teenagers — was immersed in a cloud of activity, constantly watching television and talking on the phone. For some reason, I also remember what I was reading: “From Russia with Love,” a James Bond thriller by British author Ian Fleming.

For me and hundreds of thousands of other readers, mostly male, Kennedy and the dashing Bond were linked through the books.

When Kennedy took office in 1961, he was already a Bond fan and made no secret about it. That year, Life magazine published a list of Kennedy’s top 10 favorite books. “From Russia with Love” was on the list.

He had been reading Bond since his convalescence from back surgery in 1957. 

The books perfectly fit the image Kennedy, a master of spin, wanted to project — the cool, suave, masculine, ‘shaken, not stirred’ man. After all, he had already made friends with the likes of the Rat Pack and writer Norman Mailer. Through Bond and all his heroism, Kennedy was allegorically fighting the Cold War against the Russians. 

He even liked the gadgetry of Bond. Hopefully he didn’t sign off on the exploding cigar the CIA used to try to kill Fidel Castro.

Although he never spoke publicly about it, Kennedy likely embraced the dripping sensuality of the Bond girls, with names like Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead and Xenia Onatopp, all over-the-top double entendres. I know 13-year-old Catholic boys like me did.

For some reason, it was okay for Catholic boys to read the salacious Bond thrillers. The books got a pass from the parents and the nuns, but not the movies, which were banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency’s weekly film rating list that teenagers consulted with their parents before being allowed to go to a movie.

Later, when we turned 16 and could drive ourselves to the movies, we would make up stories about the movie we were seeing while sneaking off to watch a Bond film.

Books and movies were formulaic: the suave 007 with a license to kill; beautiful, available women, some of whom were portrayed as smart, tough characters; an evil villain and his awful henchmen; fast cars, like the iconic Aston Martin; extraordinarily beautiful locales; and glorious signature music, like Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and John Barry’s “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”

The 1966 song “Secret Agent Man,” by Johnny Rivers, although having nothing to do with Bond, seemed to fit his aura.

When the news that Kennedy was dead was broadcast across TV and radio, we were startled back to reality. We sat in the classroom watching TV coverage until we were dismissed early and went home, where we continued to watch TV nonstop for several days. It was surreal, and for those of us who read Bond, it went off script. The bad guys won, and the real world wasn’t fun anymore.

Even more surreal was the trip my high school football team made to East Lansing the Saturday after the assassination to watch Michigan State University play the University of Illinois in the Big Ten championship. As we traveled to East Lansing, we stopped at a donut shop in Perry and learned the game had been canceled. For some reason I don’t recall, we motored on to the stadium anyway. There was a crowd milling around, and, like us, they were in a daze.

For some reason, then-MSU President John Hannah refused to cancel the game until right before it was scheduled to begin. It took a phone call from then-Gov. Romney to change his mind. The game was rescheduled for Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 28), and MSU lost against a team led by the legendary linebacker Dick Butkus. I still have a program from the canceled game showing the date as Nov. 23, 1963. It has a drawing of a Native American (presumably the University of Illinois’ former mascot, Chief Illiniwek) sitting across from a Pilgrim at a table adorned with a football-shaped Thanksgiving turkey.


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